Even though the six nations that gathered for talks here this week have yet to agree on how to stop North Korea's nuclear program, at least one breakthrough was evident: the emergence of China as a more assertive diplomatic power.
China cajoled and badgered the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia to join negotiations on how to resolve the Korea arms crisis. It succeeded in pressing participants to commit to another round, despite obvious tensions between the US and North Korea.
Such initiatives are oddly foreign to China. Although it has the world's largest population and fastest-growing economy, it has generally abstained or carped from the sidelines on the most pressing issues of the day, most recently the war in Iraq. For more than a decade, it dismissed US-North Korean tensions as a relic of the Cold War that the two nations should resolve on their own.
Beijing's decision to broker the nuclear talks reflects alarm in the top ranks of the Communist Party that the North Korean problem could spiral out of control, with both the North and the US locked in polar positions. Experts said China had decided that it was uniquely positioned to make a difference because of longstanding ties with North Korea, a neighbor and onetime political and military ally, and its improving relationship with the Bush administration.
Yet its assertiveness may also reflect a new sense of engagement with the world that offers some parallels to the emergence of the US as a dominant power nearly a century ago, experts say.
"China is starting to act like a big power, with interests it has to defend even outside its borders," said Yan Xue-tong, an influential foreign policy expert at Qinghua University in Beijing. "I expect these talks to be remembered as an important milestone in history for that reason."
The North Korea talks are China's highest-profile role to date, but Beijing has begun to extend its reach in other areas as well.
In the spring, China persuaded Southeast Asian nations to create a free trade zone between China and the region, modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Beijing has also begun using its huge foreign currency reserves, totaling more than US$320 billion, to extend development loans to poorer countries, including a recent US$150 million loan package for Vietnam, a former adversary, and US$400 million for cash-strapped Indonesia.
China could take a leading role in the Korea talks also because it had taken steps to improve its relationship with the US since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. China offered America help in suppressing terrorism in Central Asia, a longstanding Chinese concern because it controls the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang.
The Bush administration dropped its focus on China as a potential adversary as it became engaged in fighting terrorism globally.
Regionally, a fragile alliance that China forged with Russia and four Central Asian nations appears to have achieved some momentum. The group, known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, after the Chinese city where it was founded, conducted its first joint military exercises this summer to practice combating terrorist strikes.
"China's new leadership has clearly shown its desire to play a bigger role in the world," said Chung Chong-wook, a former South Korean national security adviser who helped manage an earlier round of negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program. "You get the sense that they are far more confident than they were before."
It is unlikely, of course, that China could or would want to try to match US influence worldwide. It does not have a mobile military that could project forces far beyond its borders, and its core interests are still regional and territorial, including the question of Taiwan.
Beijing is still recovering from the embarrassment it caused itself by its initial mismanagement of the outbreak of SARS. Its cover-up of the disease in its early stages highlighted the fact that China's political system is still closed and reflexively wary of the outside world.
Still, the North Korea crisis may have brought an end to China's complacent foreign policy. Chinese experts say Beijing began accepting in the spring US intelligence that the North had already developed one or two atomic bombs. Chinese officials also worried that the Bush administration, emboldened by a military victory in Iraq, was weighing the use of force on the Korean Peninsula, where China fought a war 50 years ago.
"The situation became an urgent crisis that the top leadership decided to handle personally," said Shi Yin-hong, a foreign policy expert at People's University in Beijing.